Photo: “Los Angeles,” by Morrow Mayo. Credit: Larry Harnisch/LADailyMirror.com
Earlier this year, I queried readers about the best books on Los Angeles. It was interesting to see how many people suggested novels – by Raymond Chandler and John Fante – which is appropriate, I suppose, considering our largely fictionalized history. I would argue strongly that Chandler paints a better picture of Los Angeles than most historians, not necessarily because of his brilliance but because historians who write about Los Angeles tend to be dreadful researchers who can’t even poach from earlier writers without mangling the facts. Consider the lesson of Gen. Otis’ Armored Car.
My Times colleague Christopher Reynolds has compiled fiction and nonfiction lists of the best books on L.A., an exercise that can be fun but is ultimately subjective. Most of his selections are fairly recent. Other than “Ramona” (1884), his earliest fiction work is “Oil!” (1927) and the earliest nonfiction book is a reprint of the WPA guide to Los Angeles (1941/2011). And no, Morrow Mayo’s book (above) isn’t included.
The truth about Los Angeles, to borrow a title from Louis Adamic, is that the city is too big, too sprawling and too diverse to ever fit between the covers of a book. Any writer attempting to compress Los Angeles into a few hundred pages is forced to choose between viewing it through a microscope or a telescope.
Nor is Los Angeles a willing, cooperative subject. The city is illusive and complex, and its past is scattered through libraries and archives across Southern California, and on scratched, dingy microfilm in library basements. Faced with the difficult and often frustrating pick and shovel work of original research, many writers find it easier to scoop up a shelf of recent books (or worse yet, Wikipedia), run everything through a blender and produce yet another version of the same old folktales.
And then there is the geographic myopia of the New York publishing industry, which views Los Angeles as a younger sibling that must constantly be put in its place.
In short, books about Los Angeles are often a catalog of mistakes: dull tomes by academics of “the italics are mine” school, highly fabricated Hollywood biographies (Rin-Tin-Tin’s secret affair with Toto!) and sensationalized semi-fiction that errs on the most basic facts.
Several months ago, my friend and former Times colleague Miles Corwin asked me to recommend books about Los Angeles in the 1940s, and I started by telling him not to read any of the books but to dig into the newspapers. Despite problems, the newspapers are far more comprehensive and accurate than any of the books that have been written, and The Times is online, via ProQuest, and available to anyone with a computer and a Los Angeles Public Library card.
But Miles really wanted books about L.A., so I suggested, with many caveats: Start with “Headline Happy” by Florabel Muir, then “Newspaperwoman” by Agness Underwood and finally – with some reservations — “For the Life of Me,” the problematic autobiography of James Richardson. For some light reading, Matt Weinstock’s “My L.A.” What else? The radio version of “Dragnet,” before Jack Webb had completely taken on the stiff Joe Friday persona of the TV show.
And here I ran out of time for blogging. To be continued….